Your Rheumatoid Arthritis When the Season Changes

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on October 17, 2019
3 min read

You can't change the weather, but if your rheumatoid arthritis acts up when it's cold and rainy, there's a lot you can do ease stiffness and pain.

Pittsburgh resident Ashley Boynes-Shuck knows the issue firsthand. The 32-year-old author has RA, and when the weather shifts gears, it tends to flare up.

"The seasons changing often presents a problem for me," says Boynes-Shuck, who has written two memoirs about living with long-term illness. It's especially hard when autumn turns into winter and when winter makes way for spring.

Experts aren't quite sure why weather has an impact. Research suggests autumn may be the sweet spot for RA, while winter and spring are the most challenging. 

"Small studies have been done, but there's no real conclusive evidence supporting the reason for it," says Magdalena Cadet, MD, attending rheumatologist and assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine.

No matter the cause, take some easy steps to keep your RA in check when the weather isn't on your side.

Try to keep yourself nice and toasty, especially when it's cold and damp outside. Wear extra layers. Stash a blanket in every room of your home. Power up a space heater. If your place is drafty or cool, Cadet says, look for home improvements that seal up drafts.

Let warm water work its magic. "Take a warm shower or a 20-minute soak in the tub," Cadet says. It's good for your blood flow and massages your joints.

Lotions or essential oils also do the trick. Warm them up in your hands first. Then use them to massage your joints.

Your instinct may be to hunker down at home when it's rainy or cold outside, but try to resist. If you want to feel better, get active. 

Exercise wards off stiffness and keeps you from gaining weight, which puts added stress on your joints. Moving around also gives you a rush of feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which can help block pain.

Try an activity that doesn't put pressure on your joints, like yoga, tai chi, and swimming.

"If the weather's really cold and you know it's a trigger, you may want to limit your outside activity," Cadet says.

But you've got alternatives. Instead of a walk, head to the gym. Do an easy workout on a stationary bike or treadmill. Use light weights, resistance bands, or a balance ball. Just be sure to clear these exercises with your doctor first.

Regular stretching can help you ward off pain and stiffness.

Try to do a series of stretches and gentle exercises every day. You can do them in the morning or before you go to bed.

Start with small, easy exercises. While you're in bed, do a few gentle stretches for your wrists or ankles. Then get up and try gentle knee bends. Use a chair or counter for support.

What you put on your plate can affect stiffness and swelling, Cadet says. A healthy diet makes a difference in how you feel when the seasons change.

Try to limit sugar. Avoid high-fructose corn syrup. Cadet suggests a diet that's low in cholesterol and high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can fight inflammation. Of course, eating well is good for you no matter the season.

"Every person with RA is different," says Ziv Paz, MD, a faculty member at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School's teaching hospital. "You have to find what makes you, specifically, comfortable."

For Boynes-Shuck, being active and getting out in the sunshine goes a long way to bring relief. Being aware that seasonal changes often trigger pain also helps. There's not much she can do about the weather, of course, but knowing what to expect helps her manage flares.

"I try to manage them with medications, massage, essential oils, chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, and an overall healthy lifestyle of wellness," she says.

The right frame of mind also makes a difference. "I think that a good support system and a positive outlook are crucial," she says. "Pain is certainly not fun and it can make life challenging, but we can take charge of our own health as best as possible."